December 22, 2010

1946: Browns Defeat Yankees for First AAFC Championship

The first season of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) culminated in the Championship game at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on December 22, 1946. There were 41,181 fans in attendance on a cold and windy day to see if the Browns could cap their outstanding initial year with a title.

Under Head Coach Paul Brown, Cleveland had roared through the Western Division for a 12-2 record. QB Otto Graham (pictured above), a rookie ex-single wing tailback out of Northwestern, had proven adept at operating in the T-formation. Ends Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli were outstanding, as was the running game led by FB Marion Motley and HB Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones. The Browns were every bit as sound defensively and did not allow an opponent to score in double digits in the first six games of the season (eight overall). In short, they scored the most points (423) and gave up the fewest (137).

The New York Yankees won the Eastern Division with a 10-3-1 tally under Head Coach Ray Flaherty, who had twice led the NFL’s Redskins to titles. Operating a single-wing offense, they had former Brooklyn star Ace Parker as the passing tailback and rookie Orban “Spec” Sanders, the AAFC’s leading rusher (709 yards). Other ex-NFL veterans who contributed heavily were G Bruiser Kinard and FB/LB Pug Manders. End Jack Russell led the receiving corps.

The Browns had not lost to an Eastern Division team during the course of the 14-game season, including the Yankees, a club they defeated twice (once by shutout). They were heavy favorites coming into the game – which proved to be a motivating factor for New York.

It was the Yankees scoring first in the opening period. Following FB/DB Eddie Prokop’s interception of a Graham pass that he returned to the Browns’ 34 yard line, Parker threw a 16-yard pass to Russell and Sanders ran 14 yards to the four. The Cleveland defense held and New York came away with a 21-yard field goal by Harvey Johnson (pictured at left).

A Cleveland drive to the Yankees’ three yard line came up empty, but the Browns came back in the second quarter with a 70-yard possession that was capped by a two-yard run by Motley. Graham completed five passes for 55 yards along the way. The score was 7-3 at the half.

Following a missed field goal attempt by Cleveland’s Lou Groza, the Yankees regained the lead in the third quarter thanks to an 80-yard possession that ended with Sanders plowing in for a touchdown, also from two yards out. The extra point attempt was missed, holding New York to a lead of 9-7.

It seemed as though the two-point margin might be enough for the upset, but the Browns put together a drive in the fourth quarter that culminated in a Graham pass to Lavelli for a 16-yard touchdown. Along the way, “Special Delivery” Jones made a shoestring catch to keep the drive alive at the New York 42. After missing on a pass intended for Speedie at the goal line, Graham threw to Lavelli who lateraled to HB Don Greenwood for an eight-yard gain. Following a seven-yard run by Jones and an 11-yard gain on a lateral to HB Tom Colella, Graham threw the TD pass.

New York wasn’t done yet, and Sanders returned the ensuing kickoff to the Cleveland 45. Tackle Lou Rymkus threw Prokop for a 12-yard loss, but Parker regained the yardage on a pass to end Perry Schwartz. However, Parker’s next throw was intercepted by Graham to snuff out the threat. The Browns won by a score of 14-9.

Cleveland outgained the Yankees (325 yards to 146) and had the edge in first downs (18 to 10). The vaunted New York rushing attack was held to just 65 yards on 29 attempts. The Yankees turned the ball over twice, while the Browns did so once on the early interception.

One of Cleveland’s problems was that Lou Groza, suffering from an ankle injury in the season finale against Brooklyn, had an uncharacteristically bad day kicking the ball, missing field goal attempts from 20, 42, and 48 yards. Chet Adams also was wide on a 37-yard try.

Otto Graham completed 16 of 27 passes for 213 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie each caught six passes, with Lavelli gaining 87 yards and scoring a TD while Speedie had 71 yards. Marion Motley (pictured at right) ran for 98 yards on 13 attempts that included a 51-yard carry in the third quarter and a score.

Ace Parker, who came under a strong pass rush throughout the game, was successful on 8 of 18 passes for 81 yards and had the one late interception. Spec Sanders was the leading rusher for the Yankees with 55 yards on 14 carries and a TD. Jack Russell caught 5 passes for 58 yards.

The championship season was just the beginning for the Browns, who would dominate the AAFC in its four years of existence before moving on to the NFL.

The game was the last for Ace Parker, who had starred for six years in the NFL before coming to the AAFC. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.